The Highs and Lows of Public Radio
PD metro columnist Regina Brett is filling in this week for the bright and talented Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz, as host of WCPN's 90.9 at Nine program, and I'm sorry to report that she isn't exactly setting the world on fire (but then, in the spirit of full disclosure, I've always found her print columns ho hum at best, tiresome at worst). The subject this morning was the statistical disparity between whites and blacks when it comes to death by drowning . So far so good. Only her opening framing language, in which she rhetorically inquired if this is a result of racism (less access to public pools?), set the stage for what could have been a dreary PC-fest. Let's be generous and note that it may well have been the station's producer who came up with this tired angle and not Brett. Incredibly, the online description of the show doesn't even bother with the question mark, simply stating that these racial disparites in drowning deaths are "one of the last vestiges of segregation." Huh? Blacks also experience higher rates of sickle cell anemia and entry into the NBA. Can we expect a show soon on how those, too, are vestiges of racism?
But all was not lost. The sometimes self-correcting beauty of journalism is that in many cases, the interview subjects or some other part of the reporting can get an errant idea back on track. That's precisely what happened here. Brett's first guest, a black swimming instructor for the Red Cross, completely shot down her premise the moment he opened his mouth. Asked if the disparities were a result of racism, he calmly explained that no, it's instead a result of differences in black culture. Most blacks simply don't learn to swim as kids and thus accidentally drown at higher rates.
This episode once more draws attention to a larger problem that continues to dog public radio: a perplexing failure to connect with minority audiences. Just a couple of weeks ago, in a great interview with Tavis Smiley as he was coming through Cleveland to promote his new book, the aforementioned Cindi D-R elicited what I think is Tavis's most detailed and honest explanation yet of why he quit the network some time ago after deciding not to renew his contract. He didn't want to be mere window dressing for NPR's efforts to connect with minority audiences, he said, without real input into how those audiences are catered to. Smiley's loss continues to haunt NPR, which suffers from its obsessive focus on upper-income white baby boomers and a related inability to connect with other audiences, who of course comprise a majority of Americans. And sorry, but patronizing blacks (as this show so nakedly and awkwardly did) won't solve the problem--it only aggravates it. Most black folks I know have even less respect for lazy, PBLG journalism (powered by liberal guilt) than their white counterparts.
In any case, the beauty of NPR is that even when it hits the occasional sour note, you just know something great is sure to follow soon. Sure enough, I happened to be half-listening to the Diane Rehm show an hour later, and heard a great little tidbit that raised my spirits and reminded me why I (along with a few tens of millions of others) love NPR. In an interview with a couple of dueling authors of books on the subject of eating greener, one of the guests said that healthy eating is mostly common sense, and that one should follow the same advice her mother always taught her: to eat the foods found around the edges of the supermarket--the dairy items, fresh meat and poultry and the like--rather than all the heavily processed foods found in the middle. Now that's a driveway moment.